by by Lillian Mathews

A new amendment to Rhode Island law has clarified how qualified citizens will obtain medical marijuana within the next year.
Despite Governor Donald Carcieri’s two vetoes, the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted The Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act in 2006. The act allows patients with debilitating medical conditions such as cancer or glaucoma up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana (about 12 plants) at any given time. Additionally, the 953 patients in the state program are allowed two caregivers with no past drug felonies to help procure the marijuana.
But the law failed to establish how users and caregivers were to obtain the drug. To address that question, Rhode Island Congress passed an amendment to the 2006 Act in August that green-lit the construction of a state-operated ‘compassion center’ over the next year—a place where patients who qualify under the Medical Marijuana Act may safely purchase the drug. The new law forces the state’s Health Department to look into necessary preparations for planning up to three of these types of facilities over the next three years.
Part of the pressure to amend the 2006 act came from the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Program (RIPAC), a nonprofit organization in the state working to promote dialogue between patients, medical workers, and law enforcement. Patient outcry in the form of demonstrations and mass letter writing campaigns put additional pressure on legislators.
One South County resident who asked to remain anonymous used medical marijuana during a series of radiation treatments after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. The University of Rhode Island employee chose medical marijuana after experiencing adverse side effects from the drugs her doctor had prescribed.
“For my first treatment,” she explained, “my mother took me in. I went into the locker room that would be mine for the next month and a half to put on the hospital gown and then to the treatment.
“The next day I was really feeling sick to my stomach, but I thought the nausea had to be all in my head. I called a friend, who then showed up at my door at 8:30 in the morning with ginger ale, crackers, and a joint,” she said. “I was miserable. But after three hits the nausea just completely lifted off me.”
Getting on the RI Medical Marijuana Registry is a fairly straightforward process. Requirements include being a Rhode Island resident above 18 years old, suffering from a debilitating medical condition, and having a possible caregiver with no criminal drug convictions. But a patient can only get the paperwork via the recommendation of a doctor.
For the woman from South County, this is a major problem with the current system.
“I was not offered medical marijuana. Nobody said that I could get a ‘legal prescription.’ My doctor didn’t offer me anything. It was up to me to find it,” she said.

Safety issues
The proposed compassion centers would allow patients a safe and stable source of medical marijuana—and remove any worries about finding a reliable dealer. When dealing with street dealers, studies find that patients who don’t normally use the drug are more vulnerable to scams. The marijuana could be laced with dangerous illegal substances, or might be another plant altogether, commonly alfalfa. There is also a higher chance of being robbed during a street transaction than if the marijuana comes from a clinic.
The dangers of acquiring marijuana certainly aren’t limited to city streets. Another problem under the 2006 act concerns medical marijuana providers—people who produce medical-grade marijuana specifically for patients who have applied under the Act. According to State Police Captain David Neill, these suppliers have increasingly become targets for break-ins. One particular grower in Olneyville has made local headlines for suffering four apartment thefts over the past year. Domenic Parillo, one of the apartment’s owners and a legally assigned caregiver under the Medical Marijuana Act, had converted three of his bedrooms into climate-controlled areas to grow marijuana for patients enrolled in the state program.
According to Parillo in a Providence Journal feature published in October, every time his operation suffers a break-in, his yield is pushed back approximately three weeks. Patients who rely on his marijuana are forced to look elsewhere.

Not so fast
The proposed compassion center is completely new territory for the state, and despite releasing a 22-page report on needed regulations for the facility, RI’s Health Department has been questioned heavily regarding details of the proposed dispensary. Specifically, the report fails to address how law enforcement will be involved. Police Captain Neill asked Health Department officials at a recent hearing who exactly would monitor the amount and potency of marijuana sold. At this time, those officials are unable to provide answers, though they may release new rules as soon as this week.
“You’re going to need security, but the [law] doesn’t talk about security. It doesn’t talk about where the plants will be grown, or whether they’ll be brought in,” Neill said. “Right now it doesn’t establish one person who’s going to make sure the compassion centers are abiding by the rules. That’s a problem.”
Critics of the amendment also want to know how medical supervision will play out in regards to facility oversight. As it currently reads, the new law fails to mention how Rhode Island compassion centers would be affiliated with medical professionals.
Though Rhode Island is one of 13 states with medical marijuana laws, it is only one of three that has passed legislation about a dispensary. California and New Mexico are the two others, though each state’s law dictates a slightly different system. California’s dispensaries are not state-run, while New Mexico’s legislation only allows for a home-delivery system monitored by a health professional. Rhode Island would be the first to have a state-run facility.
Another major problem with the compassion center concerns funding. Though the General Assembly passed the law, it failed to allocate any funding to the Health Department or any other agency to help start up or monitor the facility. For what will likely be an expensive undertaking, this creates problems in how well the dispensary can cover costs for adequate health and law enforcement.

For the people
Despite the controversy, many citizens believe that a large part of the problem with Rhode Island’s situation is the general stigmatization of marijuana, medical or otherwise.
“It would have been great had I been given a safe place to get it,” the South County resident said. “I think many women who suffer through chemo and radiation would be more willing to try the drug if it was totally legal. I talked to women from a breast cancer chat site and most would not even hear about marijuana because it is illegal.”
Though supportive of legalization, the resident made sure to explain that she did not use marijuana recreationally before her radiation. She said she had tried it only a few times during college, but had never enjoyed it. Yet when faced with drugs to cope with radiation, the marijuana provided the most successful treatment.
“After the first time, I met with my doctor and told him how I was queasy all the time, but pot had helped immediately. He [said] that though other medications could help, honestly pot worked the quickest and without bad side effects like the meds I was given at first.”
Many patients who have suffered nausea due to medicine or a treatment smoke marijuana to revitalize their appetite. Others use the drugs as a muscle relaxant or to deal with chronic joint pain.
For patients that require this kind of relief, the planned dispensary would be a great victory in legitimizing their concerns and providing them with a reliable source of marijuana. Though revisions on the amendment are still in discussion, Rhode Island has certainly taken a large step forward by being the first state to expand a previously existing medical marijuana bill to allow for a state-run facility.
LILLIAN MATHEWS B’12 knows some folks with their own climate-controlled bedrooms, if you know what she means.